Anyone who wants to know what unity looks like need only turn to the world of sports: the Stanley Cup, the NBA Championship and World Cup Soccer. The best athletes in the world operate in disciplined unison with laser-like focus on the prize. Champions give us a look at what can happen when talented people pull together. Great teams act as one. Even the fans demonstrate inspired, unified loyalty.
In his recent post on Christian unity, Paul Louis Metzger asked, “How Seriously Do We Take The Words of Jesus in John 17?”
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:20-21).
Jesus prayed for unity. But the church He prayed for has managed to splinter itself into camps defined by doctrine, race, location, generation and more. Theories on church growth espouse such divisions as best practices to build the church. There are also those who claim Christ, but redefine Him in ways that make Him unrecognizable as the resurrected Son of God we see in the Bible. There are many who make a claim to Jesus, but as Metzger asks in his article, how many are taking all of His words seriously?
When championship teams compete, they work from the same playbook. They don’t make it up as they go along. They are familiar with the rules of the game and the layout of the field. They recognize team members and don’t knowingly pass the ball to those who are heading for another goal. The challenge we all face when moving in unity is in knowing who is really on the team. It is not a minor point. False unity is no unity at all.
Thank you Paul, for rejecting “anything goes” ecumenicalism. The New Testament gives us warnings about false teachers. Writings of the early church were prompted because of challenges to the truth. Even within the pages of Scripture we see early signs of Gnosticism, Legalism and Simony. The epistles teach us to shepherd our flocks and to be careful of those who would do them harm. Warning signs like contentious talk about insignificant matters, denial of the resurrection, and lack of love for one another were taken seriously by the early church as they wrestled with what it meant to be in visible unity in their time.
The ecumenical councils were called in order to make clear the basic tenants of the Christian faith. The first seven councils serve as a kind of measuring rod of basic truths for those who would follow Jesus. The leaders who gathered and agreed on these things and wrestled with their meaning and implication were not acting without the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Nicene Creed serves as a simple recognition of what the followers of Jesus believed. It is not the sum total of faith, but it is foundational regarding what we confess. Despite our doctrinal differences, the reason that the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Protestant Churches can stand together is that we are in alignment on the first seven councils and are worshipping the same Jesus. That can and should be visible.
There are also warnings…
For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough… And what I am doing I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:4,12-15)
As the Apostle Paul warned the early church, so should we as leaders remain vigilant. A lot of young people have seen their faith shipwrecked by those who claim to be Evangelicals, but who deconstruct the Gospels to the point of neutering them. If we are going to unify, we have a responsibility to be both loving of the brethren and watchful for the flock. The fact is that there are many who want to bask in the glory of Jesus Christ. We need not unify with such leaders. That is not to say that we should not love them – we should love lavishly in every direction! But we need the Holy Spirit’s gift of discernment when entering into visible unity.